Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for March, 2019

Six Million and Rising!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 31st March, 2019

Revoke Article50More than six million people have now signed the online petition to Revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit — by far the most supported official petition that the government has ever received. The petition is due to be debated in Parliament tomorrow (Monday), though the government has already declared that it will ignore its call. Prime Minister Theresa May is determined to try to push through her Withdrawal Agreement on a fourth attempt, though it is not certain that the Speaker will allow that, unless she finds some way to significantly amend the motion, and there is no guarantee that it would get passed anyway, unless a sizable body of Labour MPs swing behind it. What will happen tomorrow, however, is that the House of Commons will have another look at possible alternatives, probably choosing between three of the eight options discussed before. That could reshape the whole Brexit trajectory, but something has to happen quickly if we are to avoid crashing out with No Deal (as the most hardline Brexiteers hope) on the new B-Day of 12 April. Meanwhile, the petition is still open, so if you haven’t yet signed it and are eligible, please do so asap!


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Grief for Grieve

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 30th March, 2019

Dominic Grieve 4Last night, Beaconsfield Conservative Association passed a vote of no confidence in their MP, Dominic Grieve, former Attorney General and articulate proponent of a new referendum to extract Britain from its Brexit impasse. A video secretly filmed at the meeting and publicised in tomorrow’s Sunday Times shows Mr Grieve patiently explaining why No Deal would be a disaster, as members of the audience heckled him with shouts of “Lies!” and “Traitor!” It transpires that the main architect of this move to remove Dominic Grieve — deselection being a common consequence of such a vote of no confidence — was a former UKIP political opponent of his who has now joined the Conservatives. This sort of thing has reportedly been going on in various parts of the country as Hard Brexiteers have effectively infiltrated ageing and weakened Conservative associations in an attempt to influence their direction, rather as the far left has infiltrated some constituency Labour parties and pushed for the deselection of moderate Labour MPs.

Dominic Grieve 5Some of the victims of these tactics have quit their traditional party to join the Independent Group, now rebranded as Change UK, including Anna Soubry from the Conservatives and Mike Gapes from Labour. And Dominic Grieve must be tempted by the comparative safe haven such a route would offer if he echoes Ms Soubry’s view that she didn’t leave the Conservative Party but rather the Conservative Party left her. It is clear that the two main parties have polarised, making them uncomfortable homes for MPs who are more centrist. Interestingly, George Osborne — former Chancellor of the Exchequer and currently Editor of London’s Evening Standard — commented with a tweet today saying that when he was a Minister the party hierarchy intervened to stop some local associations deselecting their MPs, implying that that is what the Tory leadership should do in the case of Dominic Grieve, if indeed a deselection process is followed through. But it is hard to see Theresa May doing that to save an arch-Remainer when her survival game plan rests on appeasing Hard Brexiteers. Meanwhile, Mr Grieve is a valued and lucid commentator on the current Brexit mess, notably on BBC2’s Newsnight. He maintains that he is unfussed about what has happened, but I hope that he knows that millions of Brits deplore the way he is now under fire and that we share his grief.

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High Noon for Brexit?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 27th March, 2019

House of Commons 1Today the British Parliament will demonstrate how focused it is having seized control of the House of Commons agenda from the Executive. The Speaker, John Bercow, has to choose between 16 separate propositions that have been put forward on how to extract Brexit from its parliamentary impasse. He’ll probably select only half, at most, for a collective series of “indicative votes”, the idea being that this will give some idea where the mood of the House is at present — whether it is, for example, for a Norway-style future relationship with the EU, or for a new referendum or whatever. The feeling in the Westminster bubble is that it is unlikely that any one proposition will get majority support, which means that there may be a run-off between the two most favoured options (perhaps) on Monday.

Barry Gardiner 1In the meantime, Parliament has to pass a statutory instrument moving Brexit Day from 29 March to 12 April, otherwise the UK could just crash out of the EU at 11pm this Friday, as some of the hard Brexiteers would like. Meanwhile, the waters are muddied by contradictory signals from within the two main parties. Jacob Rees-Mogg and some of his European Reform Group chums have been hinting they could support Mrs May’s deal (Withdrawal Agreement) if the DUP from Northern Ireland does too, but that is far from certain. On the Labour side, Barry Gardiner has stuck his oar in, not for the first time, insisting that Labour does not wish to thwart Brexit, even though that is clearly what a majority of Labour members want. Over the channel, EU Council President Donald Tusk has asked the European Parliament to be prepared to give Brits a longer period to reflect on the future, which would mean the UK taking part in the European elections in May. And back in London, the Prime Minister still hopes that if she chooses her moment well (not something she has shown a great ability for so far) she will be able to get her deal through, as Brexiteers hold their nose at backing a deal they dislike in order to avoid having no Brexit at all. So, in a nutshell, today will be an action-packed one in the House of Commons. And with everything still to play for, no-one can claim to know exactly what is going to happen to Brexit now.

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Turkish Ice Cream **

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th March, 2019

Turkish Ice-cream 1Comedy can sometimes be a powerful method of highlighting the futility and awfulness of war. One thinks of Richard Attenborough’s directorial début, Oh! What a Lovely War, for example. And that was what Turkish film director Can Ulkay had in mind when he made his latest film, Turkish Ice Cream, a drama mainly set in a hick town in Australia in 1915. This opened at cinemas all over Turkey recently and will be screened at the London Turkish Film Week next month. In fact the film embraces three quite separate genres: comedy, horror and action, in what I found a sometimes uncomfortable mix. The two main actors — the ice cream seller Mehmet, played by Ali Atay, and a fairground cameleer, Ali (Erkan Kolcak Kostendil) — make an attractive comic duo along with Ali’s fetching camel. But slapstick soon gives way to more serious violence as the town turns on the two Turks once the Ottoman Empire joins the First World War and they therefore become enemy aliens.

Turkish Ice-cream 2Fleeing the wrath together with Ali’s wife and baby and Mehmet’s deaf and dumb new Australian girlfriend, they find what appears to be a safe haven until that is discovered and retribution falls in a bloody scene of Tarantino intensity. Mehmet and Ali nonetheless manage to escape and subsequently engage in a 2-man war against the British army (which has been recruiting local youths to go off to the Dardenelles) in sequences that are a role-reversal of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. This time, it is the Turks who hatch a plot to blow up a Anglo-Australian train, in which there is a dastardly English captain (Will Thorp) who has become their sworn enemy.

This action part of the movie will doubtless appeal to mainstream audiences in Turkey in search of heroic ethno-nationalist validation, but I wasn’t persuaded by the argument that the inevitable slaughter conveyed a compelling anti-War message. Can Ulkay has had some marked success with previous films and reportedly commanded a budget of $26million for this one. That enabled him to build an entirely artificial Australian town in a wasteland in Turkey, which nonetheless resembles a gigantic stage set rather than a realistic community. Buildings helpfully have huge signs on them, such as HOTEL, to enable the cinema-goer to follow what is going on. The English sub-titles used in the copy of the film shown at a Press launch at the Regent Street cinema (attended by the amiable director) were clearly not produced by a native speaker, alas, making them clunky and distracting, which is a shame. But maybe those viewers who are able to suspend their disbelief more than I was able to, and who like a film that provides comedy, horror and action all in one, will enjoy it more than I was able to.

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Put It to the People

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd March, 2019

Brexit march 1Today I went on the People’s Vote march against Brexit in central London, along with what the organisers say were more than one million people. I can’t authenticate that figure, but the demonstration was certainly bigger than the last one I went on. Liberal Democrats, unsurprisingly, were out in force. The front of the march had already reached Parliament Square before our section even got moving on Park Lane and it took me four hours to get from A to B. What was similar to previous events of this kind, however, was the good humour — not least in the home-made placards — and the great sense of solidarity even among those who would normally find themselves divided by politics or age. There was even a great samba drummers band to keep up the spirits. But there was also a sense of urgency, as Prime Minister Theresa May has so far continued to plough on with her bad Brexit deal, despite countless objections, and in principle Britain could crash out of the EU next Friday without a deal — though that possibility has mercifully been reduced by the willingness of the EU to give Britain an extension to Article 50 to try and sort things out.

Brexit march 2Next week in Parliament is going to be something to watch, as MPs try to seize greater control over the parliamentary agenda and various different possibilities are floated. At the moment, a People’s Vote or new referendum is not the most favoured option of a majority of MPs but it could develop into that as other options fall by the wayside. All those who witnessed the march must have been struck by the turnout and the passion. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, pointedly absented himself for London, which is something I think he will very soon live to regret. Of course, if Article50 is prolonged beyond either of the two dates mentioned in Brussels on Thursday — 12 April or 22 May — then there will have to be European elections in the UK in late May, as indeed there should be. They will certainly be a good gauge of the popular mood if they happen. And having to closely got to being elected to the European Parliament twice, I shall certainly throw my hat in the ring.

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Capernaum *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 19th March, 2019

CapernaumCinema verité has always been one of my favourite genres — so realistic and true to life that one is totally drawn into the heart of the action, whether the film is a documentary or, as in the case of Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum, a fiction feature. From the opening shots of Capernaum, one is absorbed into the chaos of a poor, urban neighbourhood in Lebanon and the squalour and tensions of the lives of the marginalised and dispossessed living there. The central character of the film, a young boy called Zain (grippingly played by Zain Al Rafeea, his expression numbed by the debilitating hopelessness of his life) is at the bottom of the pile, neglected by his mother and knocked about by his father, but helping the family survive by selling home-made juice by the roadside with his siblings. When his 11-year-old favourite sister is married off against her will he snaps and runs away, finding a temporary new home with an illegal Ethiopian migrant worker and her infant son. The relationship between the two boys develops as a kind of coming-of-age for Zain as he finds himself more and more responsible for the little kid’s welfare. This situation also provides an opportunity for humour and the sweetest of moments (not least because tiny Boluwatife Treasure Bankole is an absolute natural; however did Labaki get him to do everything that he does?!), which relieves what is otherwise growing tension and a sense of imminent doom. Actually, one learns right near the beginning what violent act Zain will be driven to, so in a sense most of this justifiably lengthy movie is a story of what got him there. Even though there is a moment of light after all the darkness right at the end, one is left frozen in one’s seat as it closes, numbed by the power of it all. It is a truly great movie, worthy of all the accolades it has received.

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Kurdish Memory Programme

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 15th March, 2019

Kurds KMPLast night I was at BAFTA for the European launch of the Kurdish Memory Programme, a new national archive of modern Kurdish history. The Kurds often refer to themselves, with justification, as the largest nation without a country; although there are regional and cultural variations, including in the language they speak, they do have a great sense of collective identity, reinforced by generations of marginalisation and persecution. The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after World War I should have been the opportunity for a Kurdish state to be established, but this was prevented, with the vast majority of Kurds finding themselves living as a minority in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In varying ways, their cultural expression was suppressed. At the height of internal conflict in Turkey, many Kurdish villages were simply bulldozed away and survivors scattered.

Kurdistan a Nation EmergesIn Iraq under Saddam Hussein, genocide was perpetrated against the Kurds, most notoriously in the chemical attack on Halabja. But post-Saddam, it has been in Iraq that Kurds have built themselves a largely autonomous homeland. A few years ago, I wrote a book about this, Kurdistan: A Nation Emerges, with several colleagues. And it is under the shadow of Erbil’s impressive citadel that a magnifient museum to Kurdish identity, designed by Daniel Liebeskind, is taking shape. At the BAFTA event there was an interesting short filmed interview with the architect. However, the main film was a heart-wrenching documentary by about one Yazidi family and their fate at the hands of ISIS. Several perished, one girl was moved by ISIS fighters to a military camp in Syria before escaping, and the eldest son only managed to rejoin his relatives in Germany by fleeing through Turkey and joining a group of refugees who took the risk of going in a little dinghy to Greece. The Kurdish Memory Programme, involving an international team including the director Gwynne Roberts, is collecting many such stories. More than 1,000 interviews have been filmed, the testimonies featuring alongside 75 years of historical footage in an archive that is now available online.


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It’s Never Too Late to Get into Television

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 11th March, 2019

JF and Berlaymont uildingWhen I first started out in journalism, as an 18-year-old cub reporter in the Vietnam War, I’d always assumed I would devote my career to the written word. Getting my first book contract shortly after joining Reuters News Agency in 1973 only reinforced that idea. So when I returned to London after eight years based in Brussels and was invited to apply to write current affairs scripts for BBC World Service radio that seemed a natural progression — and it was quite thrilling when I had a really topical story that then got translated by 20 or more different language services. But by the early 2000s I was being squeezed out of Bush House, partly because I was freelance (and therefore cheap to axe) but mainly because I had passed the dreaded age of 50. The BBC was ageist against men, as well as women, unless you were an institution like David Dimbleby or David Attenborough. I suspect it probably still is.

JF being interviewed full size.jpg So my career had hit the doldrums, only slightly alleviated by a whole series of invitations to lecture on cruise ships and to the vast network of women’s clubs that exists across Britain. But after I turned 60, something unexpected happened. I’d done a few TV interviews at the time of the 2003 Iraq War, but suddenly other offers to be a TV pundit on the Middle East appeared — from Middle Eastern TV stations, which value experience and white hair, unlike some UK domestic channels. So now I find most of my journalistic output is being a talking head on half a dozen or more mainly satellite channels, usually on the Middle East (never short of a topical story) but also these days often about Brexit. I can still review films, research and write books in the morning, but in the afternoons I spruce up to appear on screen. So you see, whatever anyone may tell you, it’s never too late to get into television.

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Leaving Neverland *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 8th March, 2019

Leaving-Neverland-DocumentaryThis week Channel4 TV broadcast Dan Reed’s lengthy two-part documentary Leaving Neverland, focusing on the experiences of two men who were at different times the pop singer Michael Jackson’s little favourites. Only many years later were they able to face up to the fact that Jackson had abused them sexually from the age of seven. Indeed, for years both strongly denied it, not least to their families, when Jackson was prosecuted (unsuccessfully) for alleged impropriety with other young boys. Even their wives did not know until depression, panic attacks and other symptoms of suppressed child sexual abuse (CSA) forced them to confront their past. The revelations were particularly hard to bear for the two men’s mothers, who inevitably blamed themselves for not protecting their young sons more. And indeed, watching this beautifully paced, poignant film one is tempted to ask “how on earth can they not have objected to their child sharing a grown man’s bed, or realised that this was far from innocent?” Two factors seem to have played an important role in the women’s blindness: Michael Jackson’s fame as a global super-star and his apparent childlike sweetness and generosity.

Both of the two men in the documentary, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, were dazzled by the attention they received over a period of years, before the singer’s affections moved elsewhere, and yes, they loved him, even if they did not understand what he was doing to them or making them do. Unsurprisingly, some of Jackson’s family have accused Robson and Safechuck of fabrication for financial gain, pointing out that Robson had even testified in court as a teenager that Jackson did not molest him. But given that the victims of CSA often blame themselves and want to hide what has happened that isn’t unusual. Indeed, as I know from my own experience, as set out in my childhood memoir Eccles Cakes*, the secret can lay buried within one for decades, be even denied, pushed to the furthest recesses of one’s memory, until eventually it bursts out in anguish, requiring extensive therapy to achieve some sort of closure. Wade Robson and James Safechuck will doubtless receive a lot of flack for coming out about what happened to them when they were little boys, but they should be praised for their courage. And in this magnificent documentary Dan Reed has done them proud.

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